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5 Ways to Tell Science from Pseudoscience

Here are 5 quick ways to tell good science from bad science.

Tired of nonsense in advertising? Here are 5 red flags you can look for that characterize bad information masquerading as a sales pitch:

#5: The Miracle that's Too Good to be True

Life is full of complicated problems, so there's always someone selling the miraculously easy solutions we all wish were true. The fact is that complicated problems usually have complicated solutions. History does have examples of simple discoveries that revolutionized our lives: the discovery of fire, the wheel, and penicillin. But far more often than not, claims of easy miracle solutions turn out to be ripoffs or just plain wrong.

#4: Based on Ancient Wisdom

To learn whether something works, we don't ask whether the ancient Chinese believed it, we test it. Some old ideas, like the use of knives, have stood the test of time; but most, like witchcraft, have been discarded because our knowledge has improved a lot over the millennia.

#3: The All-Natural Fallacy

Being all-natural doesn't make anything automatically healthy or safe. All-natural substances include rattlesnake venom, poison ivy, asbestos, and the bubonic plague bacterium. If the only sales pitch is "all natural", stay away.

#2: The Suppressed Miracle that THEY Don't Want You to Know

Ever heard that doctors "don't want you to know" some miracle health secret, or financial planners "hate" some guy who invented a miracle get-rich-quick scheme, because it would take away their business if you found out? By this same logic, restaurants "don't want to" give you the real food, airlines "don't want you" to actually arrive, and firemen "hate" people learning about fire safety. It's an absurd and insulting sales pitch.

#1: I Know It's True Because It Worked for Me

Support by personal testimonials is the most common indicator of bad information. Personal experiences are a terrible way to learn anything: we're all subject to preconceived expectations, personal biases, even perceptual errors. Only by proper testing where we control for all of these variables can we learn whether something actually works, as opposed to working only according to some individual's expectations. A good scientist won't even bother trying a product or scheme himself, because he knows that his own personal perception of its effectiveness is practically worthless.

Of course these are just a start, and they're just red flags, not proof. But be on the lookout for these 5, and you'll have a great start toward being able to tell the silly from the solid.

Brian Dunning

Brian Dunning

References & Further Reading

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Hines, Terrence. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Perls, T. "15 red flags that should tip consumers off to potentially bogus anti-aging claims." Anti Aging Quackery. Thomas Perls MD, 7 Oct. 2008. Web. 25 Aug. 2015. <http://www.hghwatch.com/antiagingquacksigns.html>

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982.

Sagan, C., Druyan, A. The Demon-Haunted World. London, UK: Headline Book Publishing, 1996. 189-206.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1997. 63-123.

 

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